Book Review: One Breath Away by Heather Gudenkauf

13112023Title: One Breath Away
Author: Heather Gudenkauf
Genre: Thriller, Suspense
Age Group: Adult
Rating: 3 stars
Purchase: Amazon

In her most emotionally charged novel to date, New York Times bestselling author Heather Gudenkauf explores the unspoken events that shape a community, the ties between parents and their children and how the fragile normalcy of our everyday life is so easily shattered. In the midst of a sudden spring snowstorm, an unknown man armed with a gun walks into an elementary school classroom. Outside the school, the town of Broken Branch watches and waits.

Officer Meg Barrett holds the responsibility for the town’s children in her hands. Will Thwaite, reluctantly entrusted with the care of his two grandchildren by the daughter who left home years earlier, stands by helplessly and wonders if he has failed his child again. Trapped in her classroom, Evelyn Oliver watches for an opportunity to rescue the children in her care. And thirteen-year-old Augie Baker, already struggling with the aftermath of a terrible accident that has brought her to Broken Branch, will risk her own safety to protect her little brother.

As tension mounts with each passing minute, the hidden fears and grudges of the small town are revealed as the people of Broken Branch race to uncover the identity of the stranger who holds their children hostage.

It’s difficult to paste an age group onto this book. It can be read by young adults and older, and some of the main characters fall within that age category. However, the theme is very dark, more than half of the main characters are adults, so I would classify it as an adult book, but not necessarily something that can be read by adults only.

In Broken Branch, the tight-knit community never suspected an armed gunman would break into their school and hold their children hostage. When the unthinkable happens, police officer Meg is relieved her child is with her ex-husband when all hell breaks loose. Even though so, she feels a strong connection with the children trapped inside the school with the mad man, and is determined to find them and rescue them.

The book ties in closely with the real-life shootings in Connecticut and other places, and the reality of it all made this book all the more gripping for me. Just the thought that it could truly happen sends shivers down my spine. However, even that can’t make up for what this book so greatly lacks. Suspense and drive.

The book is told from the POV of five different characters. That would’ve been fine, if the characters had actual personalities and narrative voices distinguishing them from another. They have, but only up to some point; I foun that some of them read more-or-less the same. They were also too superficial,and it was hard for me to guess their emotions, their drive, why they were doing what they were doing. I would’ve liked more character depth and emotions, as it would’ve made me more sympathetic toward them.

The plot itself was pretty straightforward and predictable, even if there was a game of ‘who is the gunman’ for the first half of the book. I guessed the gunman’s identity early on, so I wasn’t surprised by the ending. What did surprise me – and all right, this may be a bit morbid, but hang on – is that it seemed like things were tomed down. It is pretty horrifying if a gunman breaks into your school, regardless of whether someone actually gets hurt, I’ll give the author that. But, and here’s a major spoiler, it seemed unrealistic that not more people would’ve been hurt. Maybe that’s just me, and trust me, I don’t like to see people get hurt, not in real life but not in a book either, but it would’ve made the story more plausible.

I did like the small-town mentality, and how the book covers only a few hours but seems to take an eternity to get to the point. It’s nice symbolism to the slowing tension the characters must’ve experienced from the moment the gunman entered their school. I liked how we got to see the entire story from different points of view, but like I said, a bit more character and plot development would’ve done wonders.

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